Strikeout Rate Risers and Fallers for Week 16: Buy or Sell?

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Missing bats is the #1 way a pitcher can control his own fate. If hitters make contact, the pitcher is largely at the mercy of the atmosphere, the weather, the ball park, the ability/work ethic of his fielders, and sometimes just sheer luck. This is ultimately why strikeouts are so important.

By looking at pitchers with positive trends in their strikeout rate in week 16, we can spot improving or declining pitchers. If the K-rate is improving, but the ERA and WHIP are less than ideal, it can present a buying opportunity. On the flip side, you may want to sell a pitcher with a declining K-rate, if he wasn't supposed to be that good to begin with.

This particular article will focus on two strikeout rate risers and two fallers, and make an attempt to determine how you should treat each pitcher.

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K-Rate Risers

Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles

Season K-Rate: 19%, Last 30 K-Rate: 31%

The Orioles were hoping for much better out of their former first-round pick in his fifth MLB season. He was bad right out of the gate, posting a 7.50 ERA in April and it hasn't gotten any better since. Gausman now owns a 6.11 ERA over 106 innings and is only striking out batters at a 8.15 K/9. There has even been talk of sending him down to the minors to straighten things out, which manager Buck Showalter didn't completely rule out. He did his best to squash that talk with a strong start on Wednesday, pitching six innings of one-run, four-hit ball with eight strikeouts. It continues his recent trend of inducing more swings and misses, as Gausman has 49 K in the last seven starts.

While the strikeout numbers are hard to ignore, it hasn't come with more success keeping runners off the basepaths. In those seven starts, Gausman has given up five or more runs on three occasions. You could argue that his .367 BABIP is due to fall at some point, it doesn't change the fact that he's nearly doubled his walk rate from last year (3.96 BB/9) and he is stranding less than 70% of all runners. While the issues here are too numerous to detail, one factor is the fact that he's actually at a disadvantage against right-handed hitters. He's allowing a .328 AVG against right-handers, compared to .311 against left-handers.

If he can't keep RHB honest on the inner half of the plate, he will continue to give up hits at a high rate. Combined with a high walk rate, it's a recipe for continued struggles. While this week's start is a good sign, there's way too much risk to take on in order to get a short-term gain in the strikeout category.

Verdict: Sell

 

Carlos Carrasco, Cleveland Indians

Last 30 K%: 36%, Season K%: 28%

Most of Carrasco's peripherals are close to last year, when he was an integral part of the staff that led the Indians to the AL pennant. One area that has jumped up a bit, closer to his 2015 level, is the strikeout rate. Carrasco is striking out 28.1% of batters, good for 10th in the majors. His 21.5% K:BB% places him eighth in the bigs, which places him in the conversation as an SP1 in fantasy terms. He's not considered elite because of his 3.65 ERA that is actually a bit below his career average (3.88 ERA), but he may be better than that. His 3.43 SIERA ranks 10th among all qualifying starters in the majors. Does this mean Carrasco should be considered among the best in the game?

Carrasco has done something fairly impressive by raising his strikeout numbers at age 30 back to the same level as his prime-age 27 season back in 2014.:

If the last 30 days are any indication, he could finish with the best K rate of his career in 2017. More importantly, he is doing it while limiting walks as usual. His K:BB is still among the best in the game, but it isn't quite as strong as it was the last couple of years.

Even though comparing this year's version of Carrasco to previous ones doesn't lead us to conclude that he will necessarily outdo himself by season's end, it is worth noting that he compares favorably to all but the best starting pitchers in the league. As long as he's healthy, Carrasco should be considered a low-end SP1.

Verdict: Buy

 

 

K-Rate Fallers

Jake Arrieta, Chicago Cubs

Last 30 K%: 19%, Season K%: 28%

This is a tough one personally, since I truly believed Arrieta was due for a bounce back year. Mind you, a 3.10 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 18-win season would be considered a huge success for nearly any pitcher. For Arrieta, it represented a drop of 1.33 in his ERA, plus he struck out 46 fewer batters on the year. This season has seen him take another step backward across the board, even though his K-rate and SIERA are barely off from last year's numbers. The difference has come in the batted ball profile, where Arrieta has gotten away from being a ground-ball pitcher and closer to the league average in that regard.

Take a look at his batted ball profile and how it's changed just over the last two years:

Bottom line: there are a lot less ground balls, more fly balls and more of them leaving the yard. Arrieta's 15.3% HR/FB% isn't something that can be dismissed as bad luck - he's letting batters hit the ball farther and harder than before. His 28.2% Hard contact allowed is the worst he's had since his rookie year. Even worse than his Baltimore years when he was a below-average pitcher that seemed destined for the bullpen.

A lack of strikeouts isn't the issue with Arrieta, even though his swinging strike rate is also going down. The type of contact he's allowing seems to be on a trajectory that makes him a pitcher to avoid next season unless he manages to pull a Justin Verlander a la 2016 and turn things around dramatically. For this season, it would take a small miracle for him to resemble the pitcher that won the Cy Young award just two seasons ago.

Verdict: Sell

 

Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants

Last 30 K%: 13%, Season K%: 20%

Another once-elite pitcher that is inexplicably struggling, Cueto doesn't seem destined to turn things around in the second half either. Cueto has never been a high-strikeout pitcher, but he's heading toward his lowest K-rate since 2012 with Cincinnati. The bigger problem is his walk rate, which has jumped to 8.1% this season. That is the highest since 2009, his second year in the league. You already know that his 6-7 record and 4.59 ERA is a massive letdown for anyone expecting a repeat of last season's 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA.

One of the issues that is commonly seen in pitchers over 30 is a decrease in pitch speed. Cueto has indeed lost velocity on his pitches, especially his fastball and cutter. He was throwing his fastball just over 94 MPH in his Cincy days, but since joining the Giants it has fallen each season down to 91.9 MPH:

His cutter has seen a sharper drop of 5.9 MPH less since its peak of 91.5 MPH five years ago. It's not his only secondary pitch, nor is it his most effective, but when two of your go-to pitches that make up half your arsenal become less effective, it's hard to compensate:

His recent placement on the 10-day DL (finger) means that Cueto will only miss two starts, but considering his performance this season it may be enough to tempt fantasy owners to drop him altogether. This is especially true now that the Giants are out of contention. Hard as it may be to believe, I wouldn't discourage you from dropping him altogether in what seems like a lost season for the man that finished sixth in the Cy Young vote just a year ago.

Verdict: Sell

 

More Risers and Fallers

 

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